Lucid and engrossing

Lucid and engrossing

Assessing the Raj has always been problematic as historians widely differ on its legitimacy, purpose or benefits. Six decades after independence they are in a position to assess the era more objectively. In The Flaws in the Jewel—Challenging the myth of British India English historian Roderick Matthews re-examines British rule in a refreshing light. What’s striking is not a narration of events but in-depth analyses of major events and the men who shaped them. At times provocative, it is an objective insight into the Raj and its drawbacks.

In a radical departure, Matthews divides the British imperial enterprise in India into four phases — greed, scorn, fear and indifference. Primarily it was greed that drove East India Company men resulting in amassing of huge personal wealth. After trade replaced territory as the main concern the colonialists found Indians morally inferior who needed to be ‘civilised’. Post—1857 revolt the condescending attitude gave way to fear as the British dreaded rebellion by natives. The final years of the Raj, overburdened and exhausted, were marked by indifference towards Indian affairs.

He dwells at length on Anglo-French rivalry, the economics of the railway system, impact of English education, the impersonal administration and manipulation of India’s economic base. All along the colonialists seemed confused about what to do with such a heavily populated land mass. While the conservative imperialists and liberals who held high moral grounds differed on the approach both were unanimous that Indians were not fit for self-rule. Liberalism and limited home rule were okay for dominions like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For India, power without accountability was good enough. The constitutional principles and representative institutions that the British swore by at home were never introduced in India. Excellent critique of personalities like Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and Lord Curzon adds to the readability. Matthews contends that Curzon sabotaged Anglo-Indian relationship and helped destroy the Raj. The balance sheet of the Raj on the economy was negative. With 50 per cent of the government budget going for the military, roads, schools and agriculture became the casualty worsening rural impoverishment. India just remained a market and resource pool. The British tax payer never had to pay a penny as East India Company promoted and defended imperial interests with Indian tax payer’s money. Why did the British succeed where other European powers failed? Matthew attributes it to money, leadership and luck. They never had to face a unified opposition in India with their army in place. 

The empire was the work of many men over a long period. Once the prosperous Bengal fell into their lap there was no looking back. What ensured the longevity of the Raj was the alliance with the local elites. Self-seeking princes, oppressive zamindars and rapacious money-lenders were ever ready to collaborate with the foreign masters. While elaborating the many lacunae that plagued British rule, the book exposes the hypocrisy of self-serving claim that the Raj was improving the lot of Indians as the mission to uplift Indians was a non-starter.

It was a ‘postpone and rule’ policy. Matthew is blunt in stating that our venerable national leaders had miscalculated on partition. The lucid style makes the brilliant work engrossing.

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